By Marcie Hahn-Knoff Explorebigsky.com contributor
Gary “Chicken Fry” Collins arrived in Big Sky country by accident. He’d planned to spend the winter of 1973-1974 as a ski instructor in Taos, New Mexico, but the season began with no snow.
So, he hopped in his van and meandered north with an idea of settling in Steamboat, Colorado. Upon arriving, Collins discovered a booming resort community had replaced the sleepy ski town he’d left only a couple years prior. Not one for crowds, he pulled to the side of the road and considered his next move.
Thoughts of Big Sky, a new resort in Montana, lingered in his mind. It seemed promising, but at 21 years old and with only $35 in his pocket, it felt out of reach. As luck would have it, just hours later a semi-truck hauling sheep flipped over outside town, and Collins scooped up a quick $50 by helping clear the mess.
He drove north the next day, arriving in Big Sky in time for the ribbon cutting. After a trip to human resources, he had himself a job and a room. Soon thereafter he earned the nickname Chicken Fry (“C-Fry” for short), slinging eggs for hungry employees as a breakfast cook.
Collins saw the magic in Big Sky. It was new but not congested. With tremendous open space, it still felt wild. There was no powder frenzy and plenty of terrain to explore. But it was the people that gravitated to Big Sky in these early days that turned out to be the real treasure.
The launch of Big Sky Resort in the early 1970s lured construction workers, snow professionals, entrepreneurs and ski bums like “Chicken-Fry” Collins, attracted by the promise of new adventure, untracked snow and a fresh start.
They all fell under the spell of Lone Mountain.
Four decades later, Big Sky has become a world-class ski resort and a thriving year-round community. The individuals who came in those early days laid much of the groundwork that made it possible, and their stories tell of determination, friendship and hard work.
Mike McCully embraced that pioneer spirit when he opened the Conoco gas station in 1972, at the turnoff to Big Sky from Highway 191. At the time, the Meadow area was a hayfield, but McCully could tell change was coming. He recalls days of sub-zero weather and was amazed that the construction on the mountain continued through the most “hard core” weather. One morning in January 1974, the thermometer at the Conoco read -62F.
Lynn Bailey (née Poindexter) showed up in 1970, three years before the resort opened, in a Volkswagen bug with her three kids. She’d followed Gustav Raaum, her boss from Jackson Hole, when he was hired as Big Sky Resort’s first CEO.
“Everyone I met in Big Sky was from somewhere else, and we quickly created a family of friends,” Bailey says. “It still felt remote in those days, and people relied on their neighbors to get by.” Her kids were welcomed into the one-room Ophir School – the three of them increasing the school population by 30 percent.
J.C. Knaub moved to Big Sky from Laurel in 1972, at 17 years old. He had followed his father, Harold “The Coach” Knaub, who moved to town to work construction. J.C. settled into a trailer in Pine Grove. Many Big Sky residents from this generation lived in cars, tents, trailers or old cabins – modern accommodations hadn’t been completed yet.
“There was an interesting overlap of the old homesteader pioneers and the new ski resort pioneers,” he says.
J.C. documented these early years in photos, capturing the homesteaders, the beginnings of development, the raw land, the ski pioneers dropping new lines on Lone Mountain, and his friends outfitted in the height of 1970s ski fashion.
“It was a wild area, much more remote than today,” J.C. says. “There was only a two-track logging road up to the mountain when I arrived. The area felt huge. Big Sky in the ‘70s felt like it was our own little world. We were all part of something amazing and synergistic.”
Mike “Dobe” Donovan was one of Big Sky’s first professional ski patrollers during the season of 1973-1974. There were only eight on the patrol that first year, and many including Donovan had followed Jim Kanzler over from Bridger Bowl.
“Big Sky was amazing terrain,” Donovan says. “It wasn’t crowded, and it wasn’t a destination area yet. The snow didn’t get skied out, and the gondola made it cool.”
Donovan worked his way up and became patrol director in 1979. He left Big Sky in 1981 to attend college and never returned to live in Big Sky. But he left his mark, and Dobe’s, the chute beneath the tram, is named for him.
When Mike Scholz’s family purchased Buck’s T-4 in 1972, Scholz saw opportunity. As a young man, he could start a business and live the mountain lifestyle, all while starting his own family. Through his efforts, Buck’s has grown from a waypoint on the journey to Yellowstone with no winter business, to the successful lodge it is today.
“If anyone needed to learn how to work hard, they just had to spend a month with Mike (Scholz),” Collins says, attributing Scholz’s success to his business acumen.
Still calling Big Sky home, J.C. Knaub says the connection to his friends from that era hasn’t faded with time.
McCully agrees, describing the feeling of reconnecting with fellow Big Sky skiers from that era as “magnified magic love.”
“It is a feeling that is difficult to describe,” McCully says, “but it is impactful. Every time we’ve gotten back in touch, something magic happens.”
Marcie Hahn-Knoff has been whooping it up in the powder of the West for the past two decades and now calls Montana home. When not sliding downhill, she helps people buy or sell their own piece of the Big Sky as a real estate broker with Winter & Company Real Estate. Find her at homeinbigsky.com.